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The Rap on Rap

The 'black music' that isn't either.

This piece originally appeared in The New Republic on Nov. 11, 1991.

This summer Soundscan, a computerized scanning system, changed Billboard magazine’s method of counting record sales in the United States. Replacing a haphazard system that relied on big-city record stores, Soundscan measured the number of records sold nationally by scanning the bar codes at chain store cash registers. Within weeks the number of computed record sales leapt, as demographics shifted from minority-focused urban centers to white, suburban, middle-class malls. So it was that America awoke on June 22, 1991, to find that its favorite record was not Out of Time, by aging college-boy rockers R.E.M., but Niggaz4life, a musical celebration of gang rape and other violence by N.W.A., or Niggers With Attitude, a rap group from the Los Angeles ghetto of Compton whose records had never before risen above No. 27 on the Billboard charts.

From Niggaz4life to Boyz N the Hood, young black men committing acts of violence were available this summer in a wide variety of entertainment formats. Of these none is more popular than rap. And none has received quite the level of critical attention and concern. Writers on the left have long viewed rap as the heartbeat of urban America, its authors, in Arthur Kempton’s words, “the pre-eminent young dramaturgists in the clamorous theater of the street.” On the right, this assumption has been shared, but greeted with predictable disdain.

Neither side of the debate has been prepared, however, to confront what the entertainment industry’s receipts from this summer prove beyond doubt: although rap is still proportionally more popular among blacks, its primary audience is white and lives in the suburbs. And the history of rap’s degeneration from insurgent black street music to mainstream pop points to another dispiriting conclusion: the more rappers were packaged as violent black criminals, the bigger their white audiences became.

If the racial makeup of rap’s audience has been largely misunderstood, so have the origins of its authors. Since the early 1980s a tightly knit group of mostly young, middle-class, black New Yorkers, in close concert with white record producers, executives, and publicists, has been making rap music for an audience that industry executives concede is primarily composed of white suburban males. Building upon a form pioneered by lower-class black artists in New York between 1975 and 1983, despite an effective boycott of the music by both black and white radio that continues to this day, they created the most influential pop music of the 1980s. Rap’s appeal to whites rested in its evocation of an age-old image of blackness: a foreign, sexually charged, and criminal underworld against which the norms of white society are defined, and, by extension, through which they may be defied. It was the truth of this latter proposition that rap would test in its journey into the mainstream.

“Hip-hop,” the music behind the lyrics, which are “rapped,” is a form of sonic bricolage with roots in “toasting,” a style of making music by speaking over records. (For simplicity, I’ll use the term “rap” interchangeably with “hip-hop” throughout this article.) Toasting first took hold in Jamaica in the mid-1960s, a response, legend has it, to the limited availability of expensive Western instruments and the concurrent proliferation of cheap R&B instrumental singles on Memphis-based labels such as Stax-Volt. Cool DJ Herc, a Jamaican who settled in the South Bronx, is widely credited with having brought toasting to New York City. Rap spread quickly through New York’s poor black neighborhoods in the mid- and late 1970s. Jams were held in local playgrounds, parks, and community centers, in the South and North Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem.

Although much is made of rap as a kind of urban streetgeist, early rap had a more basic function: dance music. Bill Stephney, considered by many to be the smartest man in the rap business, recalls the first time he heard hip-hop: “The point wasn’t rapping, it was rhythm, DJs cutting records left and right, taking the big drum break from Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ mixing it together with ‘Ring My Bell,’ then with a Bob James Mardi Gras jazz record and some James Brown. You’d have 2,000 kids in any community center in New York, moving back and forth, back and forth, like some kind of tribal war dance, you might say. It was the rapper’s role to match this intensity rhythmically. No one knew what he was saying. He was just rocking the mike.”

Rap quickly spread from New York to Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and other cities with substantial black populations. Its popularity was sustained by the ease with which it could be made. The music on early rap records sounded like the black music of the day: funk or, more often, disco. Performers were unsophisticated about image and presentation, tending toward gold lamé jumpsuits and Jericurls, a second-rate appropriation of the stylings of funk musicians like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.

The first rap record to make it big was “Rapper’s Delight,” released in 1979 by the Sugar Hill Gang, an ad hoc all-star team drawn from three New York groups on Sylvia and Joey Robinson’s Sugar Hill label. Thanks to Sylvia Robinson’s soul music and background, the first thirty seconds of “Rapper’s Delight” were indistinguishable from the disco records of the day: light guitars, high-hat drumming, and handclaps over a deep funk bass line. What followed will be immediately familiar to anyone who was young in New York City that summer:

I said, hip-hop, de-hibby, de-hibby-dibby,
Hip-hip-hop you don’t stop.
Rock it out, Baby Bubba to the boogie de-bang-bang,
Boogie to the boogie to be.
Now what you hear is not a test,
I’m rapping to the beat…
I said, “By the way, baby, what’s your name?”
She said, “I go by the name Lois Lane
And you can be my boyfriend, you surely can
Just let me quit my boyfriend, he’s called Superman.”
I said, “he’s a fairy, I do suppose
Flying through the air in pantyhose …
You need a man who’s got finesse
And his whole name across his chest” …

Like disco music and jumpsuits, the social commentaries of early rappers like Grandmaster Flash and Mellie Mel were for the most part transparent attempts to sell records to whites by any means necessary. Songs like “White Lines” (with its anti-drug theme) and “The Message” (about ghetto life) had the desired effect, drawing fulsome praise from white rock critics, raised on the protest ballads of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. The reaction on the street was somewhat less favorable. “The Message” is a case in point. “People hated that record,” recalls Russell Simmons, president of Def Jam Records. “I remember the Junebug, a famous DJ of the time, was playing it up at the Fever, and Ronnie DJ put a pistol to his head and said, Take that record off and break it or I’ll blow your fucking head off.’ The whole club stopped until he broke that record and put it in the garbage.”

It was not until 1984 that rap broke through to a mass white audience. The first group to do so was RunDMC, with the release of its debut album, Run-DMC, and with King of Rock one year later. These albums blazed the trail that rap would travel into the musical mainstream. Bill Adler, a former rock critic and rap’s bestknown publicist, explains: “They were the first group that came on stage as if they had just come off the street corner. But unlike the first generation of rappers, they were solidly middle class. Both of Run’s parents were college-educated. DMC was a good Catholic schoolkid, a mama’s boy. Neither of them was deprived and neither of them ever ran with a gang, but on stage they became the biggest, baddest, streetest guys in the world.” When Run-DMC covered the Aerosmith classic “Walk This Way,” the resulting video made it onto MTV, and the record went gold.

Rap’s new mass audience was in large part the brainchild of Rick Rubin, a Jewish punk rocker from suburban Long Island who produced the music behind many of rap’s biggest acts. Like many New Yorkers his age, Rick grew up listening to Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack, a rap radio show on WHBI. In 1983, at the age of 19, Rubin founded Def Jam Records in his NYU dorm room. (Simmons bought part of Def Jam in 1984 and took full control of the company in 1989.) Rubin’s next group, the Beastie Boys, was a white punk rock band whose transformation into a rap group pointed rap’s way into the future. The Beasties’ first album, Licensed to Ill, backed by airplay of its anthemic frat-party single “You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right to Party,” became the first rap record to sell a million copies.

The appearance of white groups in a black musical form has historically prefigured the mainstreaming of the form, the growth of the white audience, and the resulting dominance of white performers. With rap, however, this process took an unexpected turn: white demand indeed began to determine the direction of the genre, but what it wanted was music more defiantly black. The result was Public Enemy, produced and marketed by Rubin, the next group significantly to broaden rap’s appeal to young whites.

Public Enemy’s now familiar mélange of polemic and dance music was formed not on inner-city streets but in the suburban Long Island towns in which the group’s members grew up. The children of successful black middle-class professionals, they gave voice to the feeling that, despite progress toward equality, blacks still did not quite belong in white America. They complained of unequal treatment by the police, of never quite overcoming the color of their skin: “We were suburban college kids doing what we were supposed to do, but we were always made to feel like something else,” explains Stephney, the group’s executive producer.

Public Enemy’s abrasive and highly politicized style made it a fast favorite of the white avant-garde, much like the English punk rock band The Clash ten years before. Public Enemy’s music, produced by the Shocklee brothers Hank and Keith, was faster, harder, and more abrasive than the rap of the day, music that moved behind the vocals like a full-scale band. But the root of Public Enemy’s success was a highly charged theater of race in which white listeners became guilty eavesdroppers on the putative private conversation of the inner city. Chuck D denounced his enemies (the media, some radio stations), proclaimed himself “Public Enemy #1,” and praised Louis Farrakhan in stentorian tones, flanked onstage by black-clad security guards from the Nation of Islam, the SIWs, led by Chuck’s political mentor, Professor Griff. Flavor Flav, Chuck’s homeboy sidekick, parodied street style: oversize sunglasses, baseball cap cocked to one side, a clock the size of a silver plate draped around his neck, going off on wild verbal riffs that often meant nothing at all.

The closer rap moved to the white mainstream, the more it became like rock ‘n’ roll, a celebration of posturing over rhythm. The back catalogs of artists like James Brown and George Clinton were relentlessly plundered for catchy hooks, then overlaid with dance beats and social commentary. Public Enemy’s single “Fight the Power” was the biggest college hit of 1989:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me, you see
Straight-up racist that sucker was simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped, plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back, you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check.

After the release of “Fight the Power,” Professor Griff made a series of anti-Semitic remarks in an interview with The Washington Times. Griff was subsequently asked to leave the group, for what Chuck D termed errors in judgment. Although these errors were lambasted in editorials across the country, they do not seem to have affected Public Enemy’s credibility with its young white fans.

Public Enemy’s theatrical black nationalism and sophisticated noise ushered in what is fast coming to be seen as rap’s golden age, a heady mix of art, music, and politics. Between 1988 and 1989 a host of innovative acts broke into the mainstream. KRS-One, now a regular on the Ivy League lecture circuit, grew up poor, living on the streets of the South Bronx until he met a New York City social worker, Scott La Rock, later murdered in a driveby shooting. Together they formed BDP, Boogie Down Productions, recording for the Jive label on RCA. Although songs like “My Philosophy” and “Love’s Gonna Get ‘Cha (Material Love)“ were clever and self-critical, BDP’s roots remained firmly planted in the guns-and-posturing of the mainstream rap ghetto.

The ease with which rap can create such aural cartoons, says Hank Shocklee, lies at the very heart of its appeal as entertainment: “Whites have always liked black music,” he explains. “That part is hardly new. The difference with rap was that the imagery of black artists, for the first time, reached the level of black music. The sheer number of words in a rap song allows for the creation of full characters impossible in R&B. Rappers become like superheroes. Captain America or the Fantastic Four.”

By 1988 the conscious manipulation of racial stereotypes had become rap’s leading edge, a trend best exemplified by the rise to stardom of Schoolly D, a Philadelphia rapper on the Jive label who sold more than half a million records with little mainstream notice. It was not that the media had never heard of Schoolly D: white critics and fans, for the first time, were simply at a loss for words. His voice, fierce and deeply textured, could alone frighten listeners. He used it as a rhythmic device that made no concessions to pop-song form, talking evenly about smoking crack and using women for sex, proclaiming his blackness, accusing other rappers of not being black enough. What Schoolly D meant by blackness was abundantly clear. Schoolly D was a misogynist and a thug. If listening to Public Enemy was like eavesdropping on a conversation, Schoolly D was like getting mugged. This, aficionados agreed, was what they had been waiting for: a rapper from whom you would flee in abject terror if you saw him walking toward you late at night.

It remained for N.W.A., a more conventional group of rappers from Los Angeles, to adapt Schoolly D’s stylistic advance for the mass white market with its first album-length release, Straight Out of Compton, in 1989. The much-quoted rap from that album, “Fuck the Police,” was the target of an FBI warning to police departments across the country, and a constant presence at certain college parties, white and black:

“Fuck the Police” coming straight out the underground
A young nigger got it bad ‘cause I’m brown
And not the other color. Some police think
They have the authority to kill the minority …
A young nigger on the warpath
And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dying in L.A.
Yo, Dre I’ve got something to say: Fuck the Police.

Other songs spoke of trading oral sex for crack and shooting strangers for fun. After the release of Straight Out of Compton, N.W.A.’s lead rapper and chief lyricist, Ice Cube, left the group. Billing himself as “the nigger you love to hate,” Ice Cube released a solo album, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, which gleefully pushed the limits of rap’s ability to give offense. One verse ran:

I’m thinking to myself, “why did I bang her?”
Now I’m in the closet, looking for the hanger.

But what made Amerikkka’s Most Wanted so shocking to so many record buyers was the title track’s violation of rap’s most iron-clad taboo — black on white violence:

Word, yo, but who the fuck is heard:
It’s time you take a trip to the suburbs.
Let ‘em see a nigger invasion
Point blank, on a Caucasian.
Cock the hammer and crack a smile:
“Take me to your house, pal …”

Ice Cube took his act to the big screen this summer in Boy z N the Hood, drawing rave reviews for his portrayal of a young black drug dealer whose life of crime leads him to an untimely end. The crime-doesn’t-pay message, an inheritance from the grade-B gangster film, is the stock-in-trade of another L.A. rapper-turned-actor, Ice-T of New Jack City fame, a favorite of socially conscious rock critics. Tacking unhappy endings onto glorifications of drug dealing and gang warfare, Ice-T offers all the thrills of the form while alleviating any guilt listeners may have felt about consuming drive-by shootings along with their popcorn.

It was in this spirit that “Yo! MTV Raps” debuted in 1989 as the first national broadcast forum for rap music. The videos were often poorly produced, but the music and visual presence of stars like KRS-One, LL Cool J, and Chuck D proved enormously compelling, rocketing “Yo!” to the top of the MTV ratings. On weekends bands were interviewed and videos introduced by Fab Five Freddie; hip young white professionals watched his shows to keep up with urban black slang and fashion. Younger viewers rushed home from school on weekdays to catch ex-Beastie Boys DJ Dr. Dre, a sweatsuit-clad mountain of a man, well over 300 pounds, and Ed Lover, who evolved a unique brand of homeboy Laurel and Hardy mixed with occasional social comment.

With “Yo! MTV Raps,” rap became for the first time the music of choice in the white suburbs of middle America. From the beginning, says Doug Herzog, MTV’s vice president for programming, the show’s audience was primarily white, male, suburban, and between the ages of 16 and 24, a demographic profile that “Yo!”’s success helped set in stone. For its daytime audience, MTV spawned an ethnic rainbow of well-scrubbed pop rappers from MC Hammer to Vanilla Ice to Gerardo, a Hispanic actor turned rap star. For “Yo” itself rap became more overtly politicized as it expanded its audience. Sound bites from the speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King became de rigueur introductions to formulaic assaults on white America mixed with hymns to gang violence and crude sexual caricature.

Holding such polyglot records together is what Village Voice critic Nelson George has labeled “ghettocentrism,” a style-driven cult of blackness defined by crude stereotypes. P.R. releases, like a recent one for Los Angeles rapper DJ Quik, take special care to mention artists’ police records, often enhanced to provide extra street credibility. When Def Jam star Slick Rick was arrested for attempted homicide, Def Jam incorporated the arrest into its publicity campaign for Rick’s new album, bartering exclusive rights to the story to Vanity Fair in exchange for the promise of a lengthy profile. Muslim groups such as Brand Nubian proclaim their hatred for white devils, especially those who plot to poison black babies. That Brand Nubian believes the things said on its records is unlikely: the group seems to get along quite well with its white Jewish publicist, Beth Jacobson of Electra Records. Anti-white, and, in this case, anti-Semitic, rhymes are a shorthand way of defining one’s opposition to the mainstream. Racism is reduced to fashion, by the rappers who use it and by the white audiences to whom such images appeal. What’s significant here are not so much the intentions of artist and audience as a dynamic in which anti-Semitic slurs and black criminality correspond to “authenticity,” and “authenticity” sells records.

The selling of this kind of authenticity to a young white audience is the stock-in-trade of The Source, a full-color monthly magazine devoted exclusively to rap music, founded by Jon Shecter while still an undergraduate at Harvard. Shecter is what is known in the rap business as a Young Black Teenager. He wears a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap, like Spike Lee, and a Source T-shirt. As editor of The Source, Shecter has become a necessary quote for stories about rap in Time and other national magazines. An upper-middle-class white, Shecter has come in for his share of criticism, the most recent of which appeared as a diatribe by the sometime critic and tinpot racist Harry Alien in a black community newspaper, The City Sun, which pointed out that Shecter is Jewish. “There’s no place for me to say anything,” Shecter responds. “Given what I’m doing, my viewpoint has to be that whatever comes of the black community, the hip-hop community which is the black community, is the right thing. I know my place. The only way in which criticism can be raised is on a personal level, because the way that things are set up, with the white-controlled media, prevents sincere back-and-forth discussion from taking place.” The latest venture in hip-hop marketing, a magazine planned by Time Warner, will also be edited by a young white, Jonathan van Meter, a former Condé Nast editor.

In part because of young whites like Shecter and van Meter, rap’s influence on the street continues to decline. “You put out a record by Big Daddy Kane,” Rubin says, “and then put out the same record by a pop performer like Janet Jackson, Not only will the Janet Jackson record sell ten times more copies, it will also be the cool record to play in clubs.” Stephney agrees: “Kids in my neighborhood pump dance hall reggae on their systems all night long, because that’s where the rhythm is…. People complain about how white kids stole black culture. The truth of the matter is that no one can steal a culture.” Whatever its continuing significance in the realm of racial politics, rap’s hour as innovative popular music has come and gone. Rap forfeited whatever claim it may have had to particularity by acquiring a mainstream white audience whose tastes increasingly determined the nature of the form. What whites wanted was not music, but black music, which as a result stopped really being either.

White fascination with rap sprang from a particular kind of cultural tourism pioneered by the Jazz Age novelist Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten’s 1926 best seller Nigger Heaven imagined a masculine, criminal, yet friendly black ghetto world that functioned, for Van Vechten and for his readers, as a refuge from white middle-class boredom. In Really the Blues, the white jazzman Mezz Mezzrow went one step further, claiming that his own life among black people in Harlem had physically transformed him into a member of the Negro race, whose unique sensibility he had now come to share. By inverting the moral values attached to contemporary racial stereotypes, Van Vechten and Mezzrow at once appealed to and sought to undermine the prevailing racial order. Both men, it should be stressed, conducted their tours in person.

The moral inversion of racist stereotypes as entertainment has lost whatever transformative power it may arguably have had fifty years ago. MC Serch of 3rd Bass, a white rap traditionalist, with short-cropped hair and thick-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses, formed his style in the uptown hip-hop clubs like the L.Q. in the early 1980s. “Ten or eleven years ago,” he remarks, “when I was wearing my permanent-press Lee’s with a beige campus shirt and matching Adidas sneakers, kids I went to school with were calling me a ‘wigger,’ ‘black wanna-be,’ all kinds of racist names. Now those same kids are driving Jeeps with MCM leather interiors and pumping Public Enemy.”

The ways in which rap has been consumed and popularized speak not of cross-cultural understanding, musical or otherwise, but of a voyeurism and tolerance of racism in which black and white are both complicit. “Both the rappers and their white fans affect and commodify their own visions of street culture,” argues Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, “like buying Navajo blankets at a reservation road-stop. A lot of what you see in rap is the guilt of the black middle class about its economic success, its inability to put forth a culture of its own. Instead they do the worst possible thing, falling back on fantasies of street life. In turn, white college students with impeccable gender credentials buy nasty sex lyrics under the cover of getting at some kind of authentic black experience.”

Gates goes on to make the more worrying point: “What is potentially very dangerous about this is the feeling that by buying records they have made some kind of valid social commitment.” Where the assimilation of black street culture by whites once required a degree of human contact between the races, the street is now available at the flick of a cable channel—to black and white middle class alike. “People want to consume and they want to consume easy,” Hank Shocklee says. “If you’re a suburban white kid and you want to find out what life is like for a black city teenager, you buy a record by N.W.A. It’s like going to an amusement park and getting on a roller coaster ride—records are safe, they’re controlled fear, and you always have the choice of turning it off. That’s why nobody ever takes a train up to 125th Street and gets out and starts walking around. Because then you’re not in control anymore: it’s a whole other ball game.” This kind of consumption — of racist stereotypes, of brutality toward women, or even of uplifting tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King—is of a particularly corrupting kind. The values it instills find their ultimate expression in the ease with which we watch young black men killing each other: in movies, on records, and on the streets of cities and towns across the country.